After Indians fans and sports talking heads across the nation spent the day discussing and debating the Indians combustible closing situation, the Indians offense did its best to quickly put the debate to rest for one night at least.
Turns out there’s no better way to avoid the drama of figuring out who will close for the Tribe in a save situation following Chris Perez’s ouster as the team’s closer Friday, than to quickly erase the need for a save all together.
That’s what the Tribe did Friday night in jumping all over Minnesota’s starting pitcher Pedro Hernandez for seven runs in the first two innings en route to a 12-6 romp over the Twins in the second game of this four-game regular-season-ending series at Target Field.
The victory, coupled with Tampa Bay’s 6-3 loss to host Toronto, pulled the Indians into a tie with the Rays for the American League Wild Card. But a Texas win kept the Rangers just one game back of both teams.
“I just wanna keep playing,” Indians manager Terry Francona said, shrugging off the importance of his Indians finally catching the Rays thanks to eight consecutive wins, but with two games still remaining. “I don’t wanna go home, just wanna keep playing. I don’t care where we play, when we play. I just wanna keep playing.”
The Tribe’s batsmen pounded Hernandez for four extra-base hits producing four runs in the first inning with doubles by Nick Swisher, Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera and a triple by Jason Kipnis. Kipnis finished the game 3-for-5 with two RBI and a home run away from hitting for the cycle.
After giving up a walk and two more singles in the second inning, Hernandez was lifted after facing just 11 batters, leaving the Twins bullpen to finish the game.
“We did such a good job early against (Hernandez),” Francona said. “We got after him and we stayed after him. We used the middle of the field and really did a good job. That was fun to watch.”
The Indians pushed their lead to 9-1 when Mike Aviles drove in a pair of runs with a 5th-inning single against reliever Liam Hendriks. But that’s where the laugher ended for a couple innings.
Indians starter Corey Kluber entered the night with a 3-0 record in his four previous starts this month, he managed to pick up his fourth Friday - but not without a huge hand from his offense.
After cruising through first three innings, the Twins started to chip away at the deficit with an RBI single by Trevor Plouffe to get on the board in the fourth inning. They added two more runs in the fifth via Pedro Florimon’s two-run home run to right field, then pulled to within three runs thanks to a three-run sixth inning.
After Kluber struggled to get out of the fifth, it was a bit surprising that Francona had the quiet right-hander come back out to face the Twins in the sixth inning. But with a six-run lead Francona was looking to save his bullpen as much as possible down the stretch and with Saturday’s game moved up to a 12:05 p.m. start for television.
Kluber got the first out, but then proceeded to load the bases. Francona called on reliever Rich Hill and entrusted him with the unenviable job of extracting the visitors from the jam to protect a 9-3 advantage.
Hill quickly got Florimon to ground out, happily trading an out for a run. But Alex Presley followed with a single to centerfield that pushed across two more runs and pulled Minnesota within three runs.
With Hill allowing his three inherited runners to score, Kluber finished the night with six runs on 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings and the Indians tip-toeing the line of possibly needing a closer on the evening after all.
But Kipnis’ RBI double handed the Tribe a huge eighth-inning insurance run that pushed their advantage back to four runs. In the bottom of the inning, Justin Masterson made his second relief appearance since returning from a strained oblique. After walking the first batter he faced in the eighth inning, the big right-hander struck out the next three Twins batters looking.
In the ninth, the Tribe finally put to rest the question of whether someone would need to step up and close when Drew Stubbs yanked a two-run homer to left center field in the top of the ninth inning to put the Indians advantage back to a comfortable six runs.
“Towards the end there, Kip and Stubby spread it out again,” Francona said. “With the wind shifting, the ball started carrying. And with it 9-6, you don’t want to be in a situation where a mistake can cost you a game. So it was good that our guys kept grinding away.”
Reliever Matt Albers quickly finished off the Twins with a hitless bottom of the inning, dashing any hopes Minnesota might have had of duplicating the previous night’s five-run last-inning rally that proved to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back with Perez’s struggles.
“We look up with two games to go and we’re right where we need to be,” said Stubbs, who was 2-for-4 with three runs scored and two RBI. “We just have to finish out these last couple days strong and let the cards fall where they may.”